Las Cruces is on a mis­sion

Top-ranked Bull­dawgs ad­vance to face Academy in Joe Ar­mijo Clas­sic semis

Albuquerque Journal - - SPORTS - BY JAMES YODICE JOUR­NAL STAFF WRITER

No­body, Wil­liam Ben­jamin said, has been talk­ing about his Las Cruces Bull­dawgs all sea­son.

Those were his words, and his sen­ti­ment, on the eve of last sea­son’s Class 6A state cham­pi­onship boys bas­ket­ball game, a game Las Cruces would lose to Vol­cano Vista.

Anonymity will not be on the menu this sea­son.

The state’s No. 1-ranked team is in town this week­end for the Joe Ar­mijo Clas­sic at Al­bu­querque Academy. The Bull­dawgs im­proved to 6-0 Thurs­day night with an 89-60 first-round vic­tory over Clovis.

With all five starters re­turn­ing from last sea­son, Las Cruces fig­ures to be a fac­tor well into March.

“It’s easy to say we’re gonna be the team to beat,” said Ben­jamin, in his ninth sea­son coach­ing the Bull­dawgs. “But these kids, af­ter get­ting a taste of that ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in the cham­pi­onship game, I think they want that feel­ing again.”

It be­gan for Las Cruces less than 36 hours af­ter that set­back to Vol­cano Vista in the Pit. The team gath­ered that Mon­day morn­ing, and col­lec­tively lit the fuse on this sea­son.

“We talked about it,” said se­nior for­ward Vin­cente John­son. “And we got back to work.”

If it’s true that 6A has at least half a dozen se­ri­ous con­tenders, it is equally true that the list may be­gin with Las Cruces.

“We know we have a bull’s-eye on our backs,” said se­nior guard Markus Collins. “(But) mak­ing a deep run last sea­son, it gave us a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence, and this year, we know what to ex­pect.”

Se­nior for­ward R.J. Brown, a force in the post, plus Collins and John­son all av­er­age in dou­ble fig­ures for Las Cruces, which last week­end won a close re­match with Vol­cano Vista, 57-55 on the Bull­dawgs’ floor.

“They’ve got ev­ery­thing you need,” said Vol­cano Vista coach Greg Brown. “They’re ath­letic, and they’re struc­tured. They are beat­ing you with their press this year, and it’s lead­ing them to easy buck­ets, and then they are also beat­ing you with their half-court ex­e­cu­tion.”

The Bull­dawgs felt it was im­por­tant not to lose sight of the pain the Hawks in­flicted on them last March as they went about re­bound­ing.

“I think it was nec­es­sary,” said se­nior shoot­ing guard Cay­den Sher­wood. To that end, he said, Las Cruces’ warm-up gear has the word “Re­demp­tion” writ­ten on it.

“We’re try­ing to have that same men­tal­ity,” Sher­wood said, adding, “we should have won it last year.”

This is the first of two north­ern tour­na­ments for Las Cruces this month. The Bull­dawgs will play Al­bu­querque High in the first round of the Los Lu­nas event be­tween Christ­mas and New Year’s Day.

Las Cruces also will get cur­rent No. 2, Cleve­land, at home next week. All the while, the Bull­dawgs are gear­ing for a run in March.

“We don’t want to end up like we did last year,” said Brown, like Collins a four-year var­sity vet­eran.

Thurs­day night, shoot­ing guard Alanso John­son poured in 24 points against Clovis. The Bull­dawgs face the host Chargers at 6:30 tonight in the Ar­mijo semi­fi­nals. This team has sev­eral dy­namic guards, in­clud­ing John­son and Collins, and also point guard Mar­cus Scott. Plus a deep and pro­duc­tive bench.

“We’re a smart group,” Collins said. “We’re not gonna beat our­selves. All of us hold each other ac­count­able.”

Ben­jamin would seem to need only to keep this ship righted for three months.

“They’ve been real fo­cused on get­ting bet­ter,” he said. “They’re good, un­selfish kids.”

But Ben­jamin doesn’t want them get­ting caught up in their rank­ing or their record.

“Coach,” Sher­wood said, “al­ways tells us not to be­lieve the hype.”

Ci­bola-West Mesa girls

At West Mesa, the Cougars started strong in both halves. The Mus­tangs sur­vived the first push, they did not over­come the sec­ond.

Se­nior guard Amaya Brown scored a game-best 24 points for No. 2-ranked Ci­bola (6-0) in a con­vinc­ing 68-47 vic­tory over No. 5 West Mesa (4-2).

The game was tied at 22 and went on a lengthy wrap­around run that car­ried into the third quar­ter. Mean­while, Ci­bola’s de­fen­sive length on the perime­ter for the most part locked up West Mesa.

GREG SORBER/JOUR­NAL

Las Cruces’ R.J. Brown, right, blocks the shot of Clovis’ Ja­keem Wynn dur­ing the first round of play in the Joe Ar­mijo Clas­sic.

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